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Pulitzer winning journalist discusses investigative series, career

By Billy O'Keefe

JON OFFREDO / The Working Press
When Brett Blackledge began reporting on bankrolling and cronyism within Alabama’s two-year college system, he knew very little about the system’s inner workings.
Now, he says he knows too much.
“A tremendous amount, more than I care to know,” Blackledge said.
The 2007 Pulitzer-prize winner spoke to a room full of journalists and industry professionals on Thursday during the session “Pursuing the Lead: A Study of Persistence and Payoff on the Bigger Story.”
He won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for his series published in The Birmingham News about the system’s corruption.
On Thursday, Blackledge, who now works for the Associated Press, talked about the buildup to the story, as well as the reaction.
“It was a love fest for a little bit after the Pulitzer, but that died down after a few months and then the knives came out and there was no more patting on the head,” he said.
Blackledge said the series, which spanned about 18 months and 150 stories, came about after going after stories in overlooked areas.
The post-secondary college system was an area never fully explored by the newspaper, and before the onset of the research, not even Blackledge’s editors were sure where it would take them.
“We all wondered where Brett’s research would lead. There was not a clear story
line in the beginning, just a curiosity about what the data would show,” said Tom Scarritt, editor in chief of The Birmingham News. “He did a fine job. We knew that before the Pulitzer, of course.”
The series resulted in the resignations of state legislators and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges and is ongoing, though Blackledge no longer reports on it.
Former two-year college Chancellor Roy Johnson eventually pleaded guilty to 15 counts of bribery, money laundering, obstruction, conspiracy and witness tampering, according to The Birmingham News.
Johnson and his immediate family members were paid more than $560,000 for contracts they held in the college system.
Now, they are mostly jobless, and one, Blackledge said, is mowing grass.
Stories also exposed no-bid contracts to local software companies in excess of $7 million.
But long before any corruption was found, and any officials resigned, Blackledge was a freshman at Louisiana State University spinning music on the college’s station.
At first, he thought he would be working with music, but after being recruited by the campus newspaper’s editor in chief, he knew his future lie in print.
Music, as Blackledge said, “was neat as a hobby,” but print journalism gave him the opportunity to write about people and important issues.
When he graduated in 1986, Blackledge started with the AP in New Orleans and moved to several other bureaus until he moved to the Washington D.C. suburbs, where he worked at several papers, including Education Daily. After the D.C. stint, Blackledge worked in Mobile, Ala., before arriving at The Birmingham News in 1998.
This July, Blackledge left The Birmingham News and returned to the Associated Press as a national security reporter — where he found himself again, working on a beat in which he had no prior experience.
When Blackledge first started looking into Alabama’s post-secondary college system in 2005, he admits he didn’t know much about the subject, but was willing to learn.
“With that admission early in the process, and a commitment to work hard, to not only understand the subject matter … I think that allowed me an opportunity to work with some of these people, they sort of appreciated that,” he said.
It is that ideal, of learning, adapting and evolving to the change of beats that is the basic task of all reporters.
And the securing of the Pulitzer proved that to Blackledge.
“It was surreal,” he said. “It was a real affirmation of the basic work that reporters do.”
Throughout Thursday’s presentation, Blackledge referred to his research, and the use of Microsoft Excel to organize data.
He also spoke to maintaining respect with sources, despite the type of material being published daily about their follies.
Weber State University professor Allison Barlow Hess, who attended Blackledge’s presentation, said it was inspiring and a testament to the work of SPJ and their support of FOIAs.
“I was inspired, and I hope to be able to take that back and inspire my students to look deeper,” Hess said.